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Local man volunteers with mental health aid on Maui after wildfires

Tahlequah Daily Press - 11/29/2023

Nov. 27—As wildfires took off across the Hawaiian island of Maui, Aug. 8-11, many residents were left to deal with destroyed homes and the loss of loved ones.

Mark Jones, a Cherokee County resident, volunteered with the Red Cross as a mental health volunteer through a program called Disaster Mental Health Services, about six weeks after the fires took place. Jones said he spent about 13 hours a day for almost two weeks, talking and working with those in Lahaina who were dealing with mental health issues that resulted from the fires.

"So what happened was literally in the space of a day, there was a hurricane out to the east of Maui that never hit shore, but the winds started coming in," Jones said. "They had winds that were between 60 and 80 mph, and they fought the fires and would get them out, and then later on they would come back."

When the fires first erupted, Jones said, the flames were covering about "a mile a minute" and only hit about 10% of Maui. This caused about 2,200 homes — many being generational dwellings — to be destroyed, cars to be melted, and 7,000 people trying to evacuate within an hour. The devastation did not stop at some losing homes; many of those who survived lost loved ones, their jobs, schools, health care access, and more.

"If you could think of all the things that they could lose, they sort of lost them all in one night," Jones said.

Jones said some residents were placed in hotel rooms to determine what their next steps would be.

Jones has 12 years of experience as a public health administrator, and is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed professional counselor. He has helped with several cases of mass care, such as the damage left by the tornadoes in Moore.

Before Jones set foot in Hawaii to help those impacted by the fires, he already had a connection to the area, as he and his family have visited Maui for the past 13 years, and he considered Lahaina to be his second home.

Jones said he was not allowed to stay longer than two weeks, as mental health services found health care providers started to struggle themselves with the fires' impacts.

"The people — 7,000 people — are spread out between basically 29 hotels, mostly up on the west side where a lot of the tourism is," Jones said. "They're really in 12 hotels and so we split them up, and I had two or three I took care of. We all tried to stay with the same hotel as much as we could."

These hotels are where Jones met several people who shared their stories with him. Jones said it was hard to deal with the level of trauma at Maui because every time the phone would ring, the caller would be reporting a crisis that was always different than the last.

One day, Jones received a call about a man walking around a hotel, crying. After Jones found the man, he told Jones his wife had died the night before. When the fire blazed through, the couple was on a street not far from the center of Lahaina. Jones said the couple was not prepared for the fire, as the communication systems had started to break down. The couple ended up waiting too long to evacuate, and the woman inhaled toxic smoke. After being taken back for surgery to help with complications, the woman ended up dying from an aneurysm. Jones stayed in contact with the man, who did struggle with thoughts of suicide, but eventually got through some of the grief.

A seperate person impacted by the fires was a woman who was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"She saw her home go up in flames. She remembers lots of explosions. I think those of us who know fires don't know that, but over there, they were having cars blow up and also anything that had fuel or gasoline blow up, so they were very explosive sounds," Jones said. "She couldn't get it to stop."

After some of the PTSD symptoms subsided and her property was checked for toxicity, Jones said the woman was approved to see the remnants of her home. While the house was gone, Jones said, it helped her — and others in similar situations — to move on.

Jones said a suicide note was written to the federal government by a person who was eventually found and received help. Another person had only lived in Maui for a week when the fires came, and her home was destroyed.

Jones said suicide ideation was not as common as many might think while he was volunteering in Maui.

"I think the reason for it was that they were struggling to figure out how to get through one day at a time, and because they had hotel rooms, food, money, and support — because of the nature of family systems, where they were in touch with their family systems — it was in people's heads, but it was not as difficult as you might think," Jones said.

While those who were directly impacted by the fires dealt with mental health issues, Jones said even the volunteering staff members started to struggle with their own mental health.

"I can't say enough for how rapidly Maui and the government over there reacted and helped these people," Jones said. "Now, obviously, somebody is always unhappy with something, so you hear little bit, but 95% of the people are just feeling fortunate. But now they're going, 'What is going to happen next? I can't live in this hotel for forever.'"

Even though many are still trying to figure out their next steps, Jones said many are concerned about corporate interests buying a lot of land. Jones said the governor has supported rules and a committee is being created to ensure this does not happen.

"When the word gets out that 'Hey, I got a call from some broker, or whoever wanted to come buy my house,' well, again, you have this Ohana situation there, right? So they all talk to each other, and it doesn't take a day before it's all over the island," Jones said. "When these things started happening, it just reenforced the fear that everybody had about a corporate takeover of Maui."

Jones said "Aloha," which means a mutual understanding of respect, peace, compassion, and love, and "Ohana" — extended family — was present at Maui, even after the fires.

Many people have started to steer clear of Maui due to the fire, Jones said, even though only a small area was affected. Jones said residents of Maui want visitors to start coming back to the area, so their economy does not continue to suffer.

Jones said that as time goes on, more mental health problems will begin to surface, so he hopes to go back and help in Maui.

"This mental health problem is going to get way more significant when things get better, oddly enough, because these things are going to have time to emerge and the permanence of it is going to be apparent for the people who live there," Jones said.

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